A Shaky Consensus

Besides military casualties, the main loss that Russia has incurred in the war in South Ossetia is the global public relations disaster it may be faced with due to Western media coverage. For many Russians, the wide-spread pro-Mikheil Saakashvili leanings of international media appear as a terrible injustice, since there is nearly ubiquitous consensus among Russians that the movement of Russian troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia was a response to the Georgian attack. Even opposition parties with good credentials in the West agree with this version of events.

The war caught the Russian public, experts and - obviously less so - politicians and the military, unaware. In fact, the country remained in a summer vacation mood several days into the crisis. Even the Russian deputy foreign minister had to be fetched urgently for a press conference from his dacha near Moscow on Sunday, two days into the crisis.

However, as the country unwillingly awoke to reality, the picture did not appear pretty. Even if the reported number of civilian casualties (two thousand) is exaggerated, Russia will have to accommodate at least 30 thousand South Ossetian refugees, as well as to keep a substantial army contingent inside South Ossetia and now probably in Abkhazia. The number of casualties of the Russian military is also expected to rise to exceed the current figure of 20, since this figure only includes the losses of the Russian peace-keeping battalion which, together with Georgian and South Ossetian battalions, had been stationed between the South Ossetian and Georgian forces since 1992. The soldiers of the Russian battalion were attacked by their colleagues from the Georgian one on the morning of August 8.

"The president of Russia simply had no other option but to resort to an immediate use of force in the aim of lessening the number of the conflict's victims," the liberal Yabloko party said in its statement. "The necessity of immediate protection of human lives can be ground enough for actions which are not specified in national legislation or international law."

The Yabloko party was financed by the dissident Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and is seen as a strong critic of the Russian government. The attitude of the general public may be characterized by even deeper sympathy for the position of President Dmitry Medvedev, since Russian television never tires of showing the consequences of the Georgian raid on South Ossetia on August 7-8.

"Georgia subjected South Ossetia to a cruel, cynical aggression," Medvedev was shown on Russian television as saying. "Both residents of South Ossetia and our peacekeepers died. The methods of action, used by the Georgian side, cannot be called anything but genocide."

It can't be said that Russian readers and television viewers have no access to the other side's version of events. Temur Yakobashvili, Georgia's minister of reintegration charged with bringing the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia back into Georgia, was given a chance to hold a televised press-conference at the Russian RIA Novosti news agency, where he presented a completely different vision of the Georgian authorities' attitude toward Ossetians.

"We planned to declare a universal amnesty for the separatists," Yakobashvili said during the press conference. "We had no desire to take cities by storm. Our aim was to destroy the nests from which the Georgian villages were fired upon. We consider Ossetians our citizens. They may consider us barbarians, but we have no desire kill them."

Another source of alternative points of view is the newspapers. In the Kommersant and Vremya Novostei dailies, interviews with Georgian officials are published nearly daily. On Monday, Kommersant carried a report by two of its journalists about the consequences of the Russian aerial bombardment of the Georgian city of Gori, located near the South Ossetian border. Journalists reported that people were being killed in their apartments and in cars. However, quality daily newspapers can hardly compete with television, where news from Georgia and the Caucasus in general has been making headlines during the last few weeks. Besides, even the opposition newspapers cannot acquit the Georgian government of all of its actions. On Friday, when the Georgian troops were already entering Tskhinvali, Kommersant came out with reassuring headlines saying that Saakashvili ordered a ceasefire on the Georgian side. The Georgian attack was started minutes after Saakashvili's televised announcement about the ceasefire.

Besides the interviewed Georgian officials and former Soviet dissidents Sergei Kovalyov and Yelena Bonner, who described Russia's actions as aggression against Georgia, there are few voices that would dispute the Russian side's intentions. Among public organizations, only the small radical movement "For Human Rights" supported Georgia. However, there is a lot of critique of Moscow's methods there as well.

The Vedomosti business daily carried a long editorial denouncing the authorities' inability to win the information war with Tbilisi due to the lack of openness on the part of the military and the government.

"The Georgian authorities deliberately created an image of Russia as an aggressor. Russia's top officials had no fewer opportunities to attract the attention of the global audience, but these opportunities were not used," Vedomosti wrote. "In order to win the information war, right after receiving the first news about the attack against Tskhinvali, Moscow needed to send to the region a representative group of foreign journalists, under Russian guard and protection... The press services of the Russian air force and the ministry of defense had to expose the lies of Tbilisi about bombardment by the Russian the air force of civilian objects on Georgian territory. These exposures should have been done not just in words; they should have been backed up by photographs and video of real bombardments."

Vedomosti's comment was published on the morning of August 11, and the day brought more news about the Russian officials' public relations blunders. First, the number of South Ossetian civilians presumably killed during the Georgian force attack against Tskhinvali was cut by the Russian foreign ministry from 2,000 people to just 1,600. At about 4 p.m. news about the Russian occupation of the Georgian town of Senaki, south of Abkhazian border, was also confirmed. Senaki is situated inside Georgia proper, so its occupation contradicts the earlier statements of the Russian military and politicians that Russian troops had no plans or desire to go beyond the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"It is a matter of principle for us not to go beyond the borders of South Ossetia, which were specified in the ceasefire agreement of 1992, under which there is a signature of the Georgian representatives," Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian army's General Staff said at a press conference on Monday. "We consider ourselves peacekeeping troops and still operate under the 1992 mandate."

However, Nogovitsyn added that after the ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia, the Russian side will "increase the number of peacekeepers to the amount which is necessary for the fulfillment of the peacekeeping mandate." A lot of Russian civil society organizations are worried by this "broad" understanding of the mandate's limitations, fearing that the military and the politicians - for the umpteenth time in Russian history - will get too much leeway in their actions.

"Russia's actions should not go beyond the framework of a humanitarian mission. Otherwise, our actions will have the opposite effect," the Yabloko party said in its statement.

More information on the topic on Russia Today (CNN accused of using misleading war footage)

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